IAN Thorpe is in the pool. Up and back he swims, up and back, each lap punctuated by a fluent tumble turn. The five-time gold medallist – Australia’s greatest Olympian – is in secret training for a comeback that he hopes will take him to the London games.
Weeks later, he will front a (Virgin-sponsored) press conference, confirming what had been rumoured for several months. The Thorpedo was back.
Filmmaker Gregor Jordan, best known for the Heath Ledger flicks Two Hands and Ned Kelly, and his wife, Simone Kessell, were poolside for Thorpe’s pre-dawn swims and had front-row seats for the press conference. Months earlier, Thorpe had suggested his comeback would make a great documentary subject. He was right.
Ian Thorpe: The Swimmer is a captivating 60-minute feature culled from more than 200 hours of footage. It’s an intimate portrait of a sporting great: his triumphs and ultimately his failures. “I think I can swim faster than what all the other people are doing,” Thorpe says with a smirk weeks from making his comeback public.
Jordan and Kessell hoped for Thorpe to succeed, for the documentary to follow him all the way to London. But with the former great not even making the final of the Australian selection trials, they ended up with a much more human, less sport-oriented piece.
All of us know the Thorpe back story: the prodigious schoolboy talent, the gold medals, the black bodysuit, the drug allegations, the press conference in 2006 to call quits on his swimming career, citing a loss of passion.
Jordan and Kessell are far more interested with the now 28-year-old as he jets off to train in Switzerland to escape the Australian media.
Away from the pool, Thorpe veers between over-confidence (“I felt like I’m the best swimmer in the world again” he declares after one training session) and extreme frailty. Ultimately, Thorpe’s comeback bid fails and he opens up to Kessell about his anxiety. “I feel like I can’t breathe and that I’m drowning,” he says.
From a national icon who fell out of love with swimming to a man desperate to regain what he once had, Ian Thorpe is a fascinating, polarising character.
ABC 1, Sunday, 7.30pm.